Police Brutalize the Press

Police brutalized reporters during the George Floyd protests. Not just a little. A lot. It was policy and it was egregious; something one would expect in a banana republic run by a tinpot dictator, not the home of the first amendment. But then the police, military and federal officers who flooded Washington D.C. in late May, early June, made the white house look like the fortified U.S. embassy in the Baghdad Green Zone, as several newspapers noted. Trump packed the city with soldiers – just like, well, a tinpot dictator in a banana republic. Washington D.C. did not in any way resemble the capital of the land of the free. But then in a country where almost a third of the population lacks freedom from want, this was fitting in a horrible way – like when a monster removes its mask.

Now the press were not the only people whose first amendment rights were violated. So were the protesters.’ When peaceful crowds were tear gassed so that Trump could pose for cameras for a few minutes at a church – the constitution was trampled. When police body slammed bystanders amicably watching the protests – their rights were trampled. When police in Buffalo, N.Y. shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground landing him in the hospital in serious condition – his constitutional rights were trampled. And when Atlanta police dragged two inoffensive college students out of their car, threw them to the ground and tased them – their rights were criminally violated. And on and on.

But what happened to the press stands out. It does so because Trump routinely vilifies the press. That is one of his signature rants. And the police take their cue from Trump – a demagogue who has little idea what’s in the constitution and cares less. The police are only too happy to act as his storm troopers, stomping on reporters. What happened to journalist Andrea Sahouri in Des Moines is instructive. According to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, when police approached, Sahouri said, “I’m press. I’m press.’ An officer responded, ‘I didn’t ask,’ before spraying her twice in the face with pepper spray, the Register reported. Officers then handcuffed her using zip ties.” As of June 5, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker had recorded 34 police assaults on 43 journalists during the George Floyd protests.

What we had in the U.S. at the end of May was a national police riot. The police evidently decided they did not like the public and so they rioted, attacking peaceful protesters, pepper spraying people without regard for age or disability, shooting protesters in the face with rubber bullets, beating people up and generally behaving like barbarians. The head of the Philadelphia police union summed up their attitude when he called Black Lives Matter activists “a pack of rabid animals.”

Last year according to Politico, U.S. police murdered over 1000 citizens, compared to zero police murders in Japan and three in the U.K. American police have too much military hardware, are way too violent, enjoy the undeserved privilege of qualified immunity from lawsuits for their malfeasance and have far too little connection to the communities they supposedly serve. Calls have gone out for police to be defunded or scrapped before starting over with a new model. This is long overdue.

Philadelphia police threatened a sick-out over an officer being disciplined. Good. Let them stay home. Philadelphia is better off without them. The same goes for Buffalo, where dozens of police resigned from the crowd control unit in protest over police suspensions for shoving the elderly man to the pavement, seriously injuring him. Police have protested like this before, in New York during the Eric Garner uproar, with interesting results: when police don’t show up for work, crime decreases.

Reactionary, politically powerful police unions make things worse. Other unions urging the AFL-CIO to expel the police union are correct to do so. Also prosecutors have an outsized and often malign influence. One of Joe Biden’s vice presidential contenders, Amy Klobuchar, was a Minnesota prosecutor, who declined to charge Derek Chauvin for killing a Native American man. Had she charged him and had he received a long sentence – two big ifs – he would have been in prison and thus not have murdered George Floyd. Interestingly two other top Biden vp contenders, Kamala Harris and Gretchen Whitmer, are former prosecutors. Who knows what police brutality and drug war skeletons lurk in their closets?

But what about the looting, Molotov cocktails, arson, destroyed vehicles and scattered acts of violence that preceded the police riot? Perpetrated by peaceful protesters? Doubtful. And definitely not an excuse for police mayhem. The cops were all too eager to let loose on nonviolent protesters – and maybe that has more to do with public shaming caused by massive protest against police murder. It also has to do with the fact that in Minneapolis, people burnt a police station to the ground. That shocked the police and the powers that be. Some say it is what spurred the arrest of the officers who killed Floyd. Could be. But image of that station on fire made the police go ballistic. Their victims were, as so often, not the violent but the peaceable. This is a routine and infuriating irony of American policing, one not lost on those rebelling.

If the police in the U.S. stopped humiliating and killing citizens and stopped acting like an occupying army in urban neighborhoods, maybe public rage would not have exploded. All the cops had to do was start acting civilized. Now is too late for many of them, as they may find themselves out of their jobs.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.